Citizenship and the Pursuit of Truth

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The question of truth and reasoning with respect to good citizenship has long been the topic of philosophical debate. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato pondered the question of truth and ethics. The questioning persisted as modern philosophers continued to define our role as human beings in determining truth and applying that truth to our own ethical behavior.

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In W.K. Clifford’s essay The Ethics of Belief, he argues that it is our responsibility to seek the truth through evidential support. Clifford’s theory is that without evidence one can not truly make ethical decisions; thus, one can not be an ethical citizen without knowing the truth through substantiated evidence. The question of the importance of truth and evidence in relation to our own ethics and citizenship continues to be a significant topic today. Are we, as Americans living in a democracy, required to always seek and know the truth based on evidentiary support? Or, do we as citizens have the right to form our opinions based on logic and reasoning without hard facts to support our beliefs? In answering these two questions, one can pursue her own definition of ethical citizenship.

According to W.K. Clifford, before one can have ethical beliefs, it is essential that information must be based in fact. He proposes that for one to make ethical decisions, she must not include personal opinion or change the facts to match her own desires. Clifford states, It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence (Chignell). Clifford’s theory is strongly evidentialist. He believed that citizens are obligated to seek evidence, be open to the new evidence, and take others’ evidence into careful consideration (Chignell).

In Clifford’s essay, he uses the story of a shipowner who knows that his ship is rickety, but he decides to let people travel on a transatlantic voyage anyway. The ship sinks and passengers die. Clifford proposes that the shipowner is responsible for the deaths because he knew all along that the ship might be unsafe. Clifford goes on to state that the owner would still be guilty of unethical decision making even if the ship had safely landed and passengers were unharmed. He states that positive outcomes do not negate poor decisions (Chignell). Clifford’s theory is in line with the Philosophical Model for Reflective Deliberation. The shipowner failed to rationally evaluate and deliberate before committing to sending the people on their unsuccessful voyage. If we as citizens follow the Philosophical Model and Clifford’s theory, it becomes our responsibility to always seek sufficient, truthful evidence to guide our behaviors and beliefs.

In a democracy, the pursuit of truth is necessary in keeping the citizens of the republic safe and secure. In the United States, we entrust our political leaders with our lives.

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